More Black Men in Prison Today Than Enslaved in 1850

ColorLines' Thoai Lu is reporting that the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that as of 2008, there were more than 846,000 black men in prison, making up 40.2 percent of all inmates in the system. The article highlights a recent talk given by author Michelle Alexander, who puts those numbers in context. Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, told an audience at the Pasadena Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, "More African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began."

Alexander argues that prisons have become the latest form of economic and social disenfranchisement for young people of color, particularly black men. In it, she grapples with a central question: If crime rates have fluctuated over the years and are now at historical lows, then why have rates of incarcerated men of color skyrocketed over the past 30 years? The "war on drugs," which focuses primarily on communities of color, is the answer, although multiple studies have proved that whites use and sell illegal drugs at rates equal to or higher than blacks. Despite this data, four of five black youths in some inner-city communities can expect to be incarcerated in their lifetimes.

Alexander discusses how convicted felons are subject to forms of discrimination reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. This includes being denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits, much like their parents or grandparents.

Alexander raises a pressing issue as states like Florida move to privatize prison systems and strip convicted felons of the right to vote even after completing their sentences. The only thing sadder than having more men in prison now than in slavery during 1850 is that many don't understand that slavery is still legal within the prison system. Indeed, it is the only place where slavery is still legal in the United States. It is clear that our community is in trouble. What are we going to do about it?

- Article orginaly published in The Root.


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